ASEE Prism On-line, February 2000

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By Alvin P. Sanoff

The Book on the Bookshelf
By Henry Petroski
Alfred A. Knopf, New York; 1999, 290 pp., $26

Bookshelves fill our homes and our offices and are so much a part of our lives that we rarely give them a second thought except, perhaps, to wonder if we have enough of them.

Now, along comes Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering at Duke University and author of books on such subjects as the history of the pencil, to tackle another seemingly mundane topic: the bookshelf and its evolution. By the time you finish Petroski's latest work, which is as much about the history of the book as the bookshelf, you will never look at the places where you store your books in quite the same way.

Petroski provides fascinating insights into the evolution of bookshelves. The Romans and Greeks stored their scrolls on wall shelves subdivided into pigeonholes. Petroski speculates that "an ancient library having such 'bookcases' filled with scrolls lying flat on the shelves must have looked somewhat like the stockroom of a modern wallpaper shop." In the Middle Ages, books were so valuable that they were attached to the lecterns on which they sat by a chain, so that nobody would abscond with them. When not in use, the books sat on the lectern with their covers up, as if on display.

With the invention of movable type, books became more common, but they still frequently remained chained and were stored with their edges, rather than their binding, facing outward. Affixing a chain to the fore-edge of a vertically shelved book, Petroski informs readers, was less likely to damage the volume. In the 16th century, books were gradually released from their chains and began to have the author and title imprinted on their spines, resulting in our familiar spine-outward shelving.

Petroski enlivens his tale with anecdotes, including some about eccentric book collectors with whom readers whose homes are awash in books will identify. Fourteenth century bibliophile Richard de Bury was "compelled to climb over his books to reach his bed." In the 18th century, Thomas Rawlinson, who "gathered books much as a squirrel gathers nuts," acquired so many volumes in his rooms that he had to sleep in the hallway.

Not surprisingly, Petroski frequently draws on his engineering background to make a point. "The engineering problem of designing a solid-looking bookshelf is essentially no different from that of designing a bridge," says Petroski. "A shelf loaded with books or a bridge loaded with bumper-to-bumper traffic is what is known to engineers as a uniformly loaded beam."

Petroski ends his tale with an appendix that offers a variety of systems that can be used for storing books. The systems range from the logical--by subject or by the author's last name--to the bizarre, grouping books "by price in constant dollars." Regardless of how you choose to shelve your books, you will come away from Petroski's latest work with a new appreciation for the lowly bookself.

Alvin P. Sanoff is a higher education consultant who has an affinity for books.

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